The banjo is that most platypus of musical instruments. Is it a Piltdown mash-up of guitar and drum, or a machine adapted by United States slaves from Africa? A bit of both? A bit of neither? Whatever the case, the banjo, like pizza, is a U.S. invention and became best known after the release of John Boorman’s 1972 film, Deliverance, which spawned the crossover hit “Dueling Banjos”, an AM radio staple.
In Boorman’s film, the banjo is played by an autistic hillbilly boy. That such a character should become the best-known banjo player in the world struck me as odd, given the instrument’s roots. But then, I cannot imagine many post-WWII African-Americans wanting their children to learn an instrument associated with 19th century minstrel music. How is it that the banjo was embraced by those who insisted its inventors were uncivilized?
When I was twenty-five my father gave me a banjo for Christmas, which also struck me as odd because after the age of eighteen he had stopped giving me presents. Yes, I had been playing in a band where a banjo would be welcome (and was), but I was also undergoing chemotherapy, and the last thing I imagined was the day after the one I was struggling to get through.
As it turned out, the banjo was just what I needed -- a hopeful gift and a distraction from the chemicals that were both eating and cleaning my body. But my father being my father, I was never sure. After thanking him, he took the instrument from my hands, plucked the strings admiringly, and said, in manner both deadpan and absent, "So, if these treatments don’t work out, you’ll see that this banjo gets back to me."